By Bob Bahr
John Seerey-Lester, one of the judges of the 2017 SKB Small Works Exhibition, exclaimed before the awards were given out that the Watercolor division was particularly stocked with excellent paintings this year. “There were so many and all so good, it was hardest category to judge,” he said.
That category also produced the Best of Show winner, “Yellowstone Forever,” by Carol Peterson. “That piece absolutely blew me away as soon as I walked upstairs,” Seerey-Lester said. “If you take a quick look at it, it could be an acrylic or oil painting. To pull this off in watercolor is a fine achievement.”
The piece depicts a petrified sequoia tree. “The background makes the piece, as much as the main subject does,” said Seerey-Lester. “The colors and values are perfect.” The prize is a free scholarship for the 2018 Dubois workshop.
“This is a joy beyond words,” Peterson said. “It is a gift that will motivate and inspire me all year. To win a scholarship to come back with my SKB family—painters and sculptors so talented and devoted—is so great. I’ve been coming here since 2011. It’s like coming home to friends.”
The sixth winner of the Roger Tory Peterson Award was also announced at the Sept. 18 presentation. Andy Wei, a celebrated young artist just starting college in New York City, got the nod. Seerey-Lester was jubilant in his announcement of Wei’s win.
“It’s just a phenomenal piece in concept and execution, and you are a genius. I hate you,” Seerey-Lester said, provoking laughter. “This is a true masterpiece. Everyone who knows you should be very proud to know you. We are going to see a lot more of this young man.”
The award was given to Wei for his body of work, not just his piece in the miniature show. But that painting, “The Edge of REM,” drew considerable praise from Seerey-Lester. “This is something quite spectacular,” he said.
Wei’s work, along with work by Seerey-Lester, his wife, Suzie; and the previous five winners of the Roger Tory Peterson Award, will appear in a special show at the Bennington Museum, in Bennington, VT, in 2018, probably in late summer or early fall.
Wei wasn’t done yet. He also won SKB’s Rising Star Award, an honor rarely given by the Susan Kathleen Black Foundation. Wanda Mumm first met Wei at the Western Art Academy, in Kerrville, TX, which Wei was attending on scholarship. “When John [Phelps] and I first met him, we said, ‘What are we going to teach this guy?’ He was already so perceptive and talented.” One of Wei’s paintings, a portrait of John Finley and his dog, sold at auction for a record-breaking $235,000 earlier in 2017. He’s now a student at Parsons School of Design.
Kyle Denning won the Jim Parkman Purchase Award for his oil painting “Margaret Alice Wilson.” “What an honor,” Denning said. “Thank you, Jim. I just loved this picture of my great grandmother. It was taken when I was 10. What can I say?”
In the Oil category, Susan Noyd won First Place for “End of the Day.” “It’s very moody and very subtle,” said Seerey-Lester. “It’s very hard to paint something like this and pull it off.”
The judges changed things up a bit this year by offering critiques on pieces as they gave awards. Praise was mixed with constructive criticism. Second Place in Oil went to Rodney J. Reveal, for “You See What I See.” “This is a beautiful piece with a lot of intensity, with the cats looking off to the right,” commented Seerey-Lester. “It would have been more powerful if only one of the cats had a good light on it and the other one was subdued.”
Third Place went to Christine E. White for “Finale,” and Gwen Bruner earned Honorable Mention for “Mountain Blue.” “It’s a very simple piece and the simplicity was key, but the colors were what captured us,” Seerey-Lester said of Bruner’s painting. “It is a simple, nice piece, and it shows that sometimes it’s not what goes into a piece. It’s what is left out of it.”
In Acrylic, Rusty Frentner took First Place with “Frog Warts,” and Frentner’s homemade frame wowed the judges. “The thing about this particular piece is the subtle colors that he used,” said Seerey-Lester. “We also liked the frame; it complements the piece. Each painting is a package—the painting and the frame. Sometimes a good painting can be let down by a bad frame. Here, the frame and the painting worked together.”
Philip Brevick’s “Deus et Provisor” won Second Place. “We looked at this for a long time and we had a big discussion about it,” said Seerey-Lester. “We all thought the lighting was excellent and the foreground was very, very good. We weren’t happy with the polar bear in the background. We thought the polar bear let it down a little bit. Perhaps it would have been better if it were facing a different way or going in another direction.”
Larry Wollam’s striking pastel of a bighorn ram won First Place in Other Media. Wollam said he painted “Broomed” in two days on toned sanded paper, using pastel pencils. He used his reference photo of a taxidermied mount that he saw at last year’s SKB event in Dubois. “This is a very, very powerful piece,” Seerey-Lester said. “The negative and positive shapes are really strong and powerful. That’s how it got to be first place.”
Second Place went to Kitty Dodd for her colored pencil work, “Early Morning Wanna Be.” “This was a particular favorite of mine,” Seerey-Lester said, adding with a laugh that he realized he probably shouldn’t say such things, as a judge. “The best thing to do is have odd numbers of things in a painting, but this has an equal number and it still works. We talked about some of the anatomy of the dogs being a bit off, but in the end we thought it perfect. Each of those dogs has a personality, and that is important, because those critters do have personalities.”
Chris Rowlands earned Third with “Siesta in the Smokies,” a colored pencil drawing of a two bears in a tree, which Seerey-Lester praised for its composition. “The combination of the placement of the bear, and the beautiful, complex background makes this composition, but you can also easily see the bird,” he said. “The different color pops out and brings your eye to the right place.”
Molly Moore’s pen-and-ink with colored pencil piece “Standing Strong” earned Honorable Mention.
When Seerey-Lester and Bob Koenke announced the Watercolor winners, it was evident that the judges were both excited and challenged by the task of picking top winners. Marvie Tipsword’s “Henry’s Marsh” won both First Place and the High Plains Framing Award. Tipsword did the framing herself. “The painting is beautiful–simple and nice, a little jewel,” Seerey-Lester said. “But the framing really makes it something more special. It gives it an extra jewel. A few more jewels in the crown, if you will,” he said with a smile.
Second Place went to Joy Keown for “Greenhead,” a portrait of a mallard. “The treatment of the subject–the way it’s handled–is excellent, and it’s a very, very strong composition. One aspect that caused us problems was the feet. They are slightly inaccurate. But overall, we loved it. The design elements were really great.”
Pushpa Mehta won Third with “Nature’s Green Energy,” a burst of green foliage. “This has a lot of wonderful qualities,” said Seerey-Lester. “There’s one element that we thought would be an improvement. You eye travels throughout the painting and your eye travels to this one particular place… but there’s nothing there. If there were something there, it would make it more dynamic. That’s not to take away from it; it’s a beautiful piece.”
Betty Clark’s “Shearing Time Again” won Honorable Mention and came with an amusing story that the artist told from the stage. “This was from a scene at a historic site near Santa Fe,” Clark explained. “They brought in a shearer to demonstrate how one could shear a sheep by hand. They had a fence around him to keep the tourists out. When he finished, everybody started applauding. And he looked at all the tourists like they were absolutely out of their minds!”
In recent years, SKB has invited teen artists to join the workshop on scholarship. Among the teens, two were honored for their contributions to the Small Works Exhibition. Nadhisha Edwards won First Place with her acrylic painting “Flowing Fins.” “This is a really striking piece,” Seerey-Lester said. “It’s simple, but there’s a lot of flowing movement. She kept the frame very simple, and this pops out because of it.”
Jared Brady took Second with “Reminiscing.” Said Serrey-Lester, “The quality of this piece is just awesome, and the lighting, the skin tones, and the way it was painted is just masterly.” Bob Koenke took the opportunity to express his appreciation that young artists continually infuse SKB with energy, new blood, and promise. “The young people coming up have incredible talent,” said Koenke. “We’re glad you are here.” Ω